Friday, April 20, 2012

A Week of History and Morality

In my opinion, one of the most important jobs of any parent is instilling in their child or children a sense of respect for history and morality. As a single mother by choice, this duty falls squarely on my shoulders, but I welcome the challenge.

This week two events of regional, national, or international importance brought this aspect of parenting to the fore for me. The first was the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic, and the second was the wake for fallen Greenland, NH, Police Chief Michael Maloney.

On Sunday evening, the History Channel ran a two-hour documentary on a recent expedition to the world's most famous wreck site. The ocean floor was mapped by two newly developed unmanned robots called AUVs -- autonomous underwater vehicles. The robots, whimsically named "Maryann" and "Ginger" after the popular characters from Gilligan's Island, uncovered never-before-seen pieces of the Titanic that, along with other evidence gathered by top underwater experts and forensic scientists, enabled them to essentially reconstruct the vessel and draw conclusions about how it broke apart and plunged to the sea floor.

The findings put to rest the century-old lingering questions about the disaster: Was the ship poorly built? No. Did faulty rivets "unzip," causing a rush of water to enter the ship? No. Was the ship traveling too fast when it hit the iceberg? No. The iceberg was not spotted until it was too late due to the moonless night and calm seas. Why were there so few lifeboats on board? The ship carried as many as required at the time. Unlike the Lusitania, Andrea Doria, and Costa Concordia, all of the lifeboats on the Titanic were functional because the ship did not tip to its side. In fact, a large number of passengers were saved because the "unsinkable" ocean liner stayed afloat for almost three hours.

I could tell from the preview that the program would be captivating, so I offered my older son the chance to see it. Many other mothers of eight year olds, I suspect, would not have permitted their children to watch because it follows a true-life story of death and disaster -- unpleasantries they want to shield their kids from as long as possible. But my son has known about the Titanic for a long time and, like me and scores of other aficionados the world over, is fascinated by it. Besides, it was school vacation week. Why not let him stay up till 10 p.m. to watch to the end?

We as parents are not able to predict which privileges we give our children will positively impact their future lives in a significant way. But I venture to say that allowing my son to watch an entire program filled with some of the latest scientific inventions and investigative techniques, a virtual holographic reconstruction of an iconic shipwreck, and answers to a longstanding mystery stands as good a chance as any to make a mark on him. What red-blooded boy wouldn't love that? "Cool" was my son's response when I told him about the show.

On Wednesday, we went to Alton, NH, to climb Mount Major. Electronic signs along I-95 informed drivers to take Exit 2 for Chief Maloney's wake, scheduled a day before his memorial service attended by US Attorney General Eric Holder along with thousands of police officers from around the region. Maloney, the police chief of Greenland, NH, had been gunned down the previous week by a suspected drug dealer during the execution of a search warrant. The shocking incident, which also involved the shooting of four other police officers in addition to the apparent murder of the suspect's girlfriend followed by his suicide, occurred in a small, unassuming town not far from where I lived nearly twenty-five years ago. As a reporter in those days for a daily newspaper that covered both my community and Greenland, the tragedy felt a tad personal to me. So when I learned the wake was still in progress as we drove through the area on our way back home to Massachusetts, I felt an emotional pull to attend.

My sons knew of the horrific crime from seeing coverage of it on the news and from hearing me talk about it as part of my ongoing, broken-record anti-drugs and -guns mother lesson that has also included tutorials on Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston, President Kennedy, and Martin Luther King Jr. among others. The boys have also been fed a steady diet of praise for those who uphold and enforce the law as well as others in the giving-of-themselves professions. So when I presented the idea of going to the wake, my sons said yes without hesitation.

I wasn't exactly sure how I would handle the issue of them seeing Chief Maloney's body in a casket. I mean, talk about being up close and personal with death! I have an open, progressive attitude toward parenting -- and we have discussed the passing of my parents, other relatives, a dog of mine they both knew when they were little, and famous people -- but subject them to a viewing of a stranger in a funeral home? Hmm, not sure about that.

Well, I had learned that traffic was backed up along the route where the funeral home is located. So, I figured, there was a very good chance we wouldn't even be able to get near the wake. Maybe the best we could hope for would be to position ourselves relatively close to the action and just observe the goings-on outside, whatever they might be. As a former news reporter and current news junkie, I like to be where news is happening if at all possible.

As I suspected, we could not get into the wake. The line was too long. In fact, I heard from the clerk at a gas station where I bought a copy of my old newspaper that a customer reported waiting two and a half hours to get inside the funeral home. Surprisingly, we did not have trouble getting to the site. The traffic was light enough at that early evening hour for us to drive right past without being stopped in the road for long.

But taking the time and making the effort to pay our respects, if only spiritually, was worth it. The Town of Hampton, NH, the location of the wake, was handsomely decked out in yellow ribbons, American flags, and messages of tribute. As I explained to my boys, it is rare to have the opportunity to witness a community honoring one of its citizens to such a great extent.

Block after block, street after street, the messages kept coming. R.I.P., Godspeed, and my personal favorites: "Some serve, some protect. Mike gave his all," and "God's finger touched him, and he slept." It was a beautiful display, and it brought my eldest son and me to tears. The scene outside the funeral home was even more impressive as countless uniformed police officers waited in the driveway, and a line of mourners whose end I could not see extended to the back of the stately white building. Reporters and cameramen stationed themselves on the sidewalk across the road as a police officer directed traffic.

Had I created a memory for my sons? I believe so. I believe they will remember the love expressed by the people of Hampton toward, in the simple yet straightforward words of one tribute, "one of the good guys." I believe they will get it that honorable deeds toward other people are the way to go; criminal actions are not.

Faced with two disparate yet highly publicized news events, this week I chose to break unspoken parenting rules by affording a potentially life-changing (or, at least, memorable) privilege to one son and by presenting a model of noble behavior to both sons.

As they are receptive to my informal morality lessons, I am confident they will grow up to become good men. That's what I want most for them.

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